Chapter 20
A New Path Opens

Fiora, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"The delicacy of life is put into perspective when your own life hangs by a thread. The cost of life is put into perspective when you are forced to take the life of another to save your own. If mortal life comes at so high a price, what is the price of immortality?"
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

As Mark opened his eyes, he realized he was in too much pain to be in Heaven and not enough for him to be in Hell. The brightness of his surroundings made him doubt it was the dungeon of Castle Byrn or Kyrios' lair either. He reckoned he was in a house or an inn, but he had no idea how he had gotten there.
Looking down at himself, he saw that his wounds were fully dressed with bandages of clean linen. He also came to the sudden realization that his wounds were the only thing fully dressed, for his only covering was the sheet on the bed. As he was trying to sit up and look for something to wear, the door opened and Catherine walked in with a bundle of clothes in her arms. Much to his relief, her injuries did not seem to be anywhere near the severity of his own. Since he was relieved of much of his worry for her sake, Mark's concern went to himself and the awkwardness of his situation. He blushed profusely, but in spite of his extreme discomfiture, Catherine showed no signs of being affected in the slightest.
"They have finished washing and mending your clothes," she said, her emotions inscrutable from her tone. "I will leave them here so you can change."
"What happened?" Mark asked, struggling to overcome his embarrassment. "Where are we?"
"We are in Fiora," she replied. "I transported us here just as the enemy was gaining the upper hand." She held up her hand and flexed it absently as she continued to speak. "It is not an ability I have full control of yet. It was more of a reflex than anything else. We were found by the townspeople and are being tended by friends of my father. For the time being, we are safe."
"How are the others?"
Catherine looked away. "They are doing as well as can be expected. None of us suffered any life-threatening injuries at least, but we were beaten quite soundly. I was the first to awaken, followed by Stefan and now you. Olofer and Ignatiy should also be coming out of it soon."
"What do we do now?"
Catherine's gaze was still distant. "We cannot afford to stay here much longer. We will head for Sagia. The key to defeating Kyrios must lie within the depths of Ban Gorge. For now, rest and recover your strength. We will remain here for no more than three days."
Leaving Mark's clothes on the bed, Catherine turned and left. Mark sighed and lay back down. For the time being, he could do little more than sleep. The battle against Kyrios had only begun and he would need all his strength for the trials that awaited them.

* * *

Two days passed before Mark was well enough to walk around. The others were not as far along on the road to recovery and at the insistence of their hosts, Catherine grudgingly allowed a few more days before their departure. As a result, Mark was left with a fair amount of time on his hands. After having spent so much time on the road, he had lost his affinity for being indoors and needed some fresh air. Catherine gave him permission to look around the city as long as he remained inconspicuous.
He had never been to Fiora before and he was eager to see the celebrated 'Flower of Byrn' for himself. The city lived up to its reputation with immaculate cobblestone streets, numerous marble sculptures of fine and delicate craftsmanship, and an abundance of well-tended flower gardens. The center of the town square had three elaborate fountains, but Mark could not see them well because of the throng of people that had gathered there.
Easing his way into the crowd, he saw the object of their attention. Clad in ornate armor highlighted by indigo gems, a man was addressing the crowd. He was tall and muscular with uncommonly lean, sharp features and deep-set green eyes with a cruel gleam that seemed vaguely familiar. His long black hair was tied into braids as was his moustache, which trailed down past his chin. He was flanked by a group of dangerous-looking brutes, who Mark guessed to be either bandits or mercenaries.
Although the man's refined manner of speaking indicated noble birth, his eyes had the hungry look of a wild dog. Mark wondered where he had seen those eyes before, but he quickly pushed the thought aside to pay attention to what was being said.
"Good people of Fiora," the man exhorted, "I am offering a rare opportunity. Those who have been to Arita know of the Wayfarers' myths. One of those myths speaks of the two trees in the center of Paradise. The fruit of one tree gave Man the knowledge to stand above the beasts and subdue the world. The other would grant him eternal life and make him a god.
"You see, my friends, all myths have a grain of truth to them. The scholars of Sagia have determined the location of the legendary Eden and I go to fetch the fruit of this Tree of Life. Any able-bodied man who wishes to join me will partake of the fruit in that hallowed land, but that is not all."
He held up his hand and acted as if he was rubbing coins between his fingers. "Financial contributions will also be rewarded accordingly. Until we eat of the fruit, we are but mortal men and it will take gold to deliver us there whole in body and spirit. Think of the opportunity, friends. Even a sliver of the fruit will extend your life by hundreds of years. Imagine all the things you could see and do in that time." He paused to gauge the audience's reception before continuing. "Now, who is with me?"
Not surprisingly, the crowd burst into a clamor of support. Young men stepped forward to join the expedition, while others held up their coin purses to buy their ticket to immortality. Over all this noise and bustle, a single voice rose above the crowd with its harsh cry.
The man silenced the crowd with a gesture and the voice was singled out from among them. The townspeople parted to expose the voice of opposition, an indignant young man clad in the white habit of a monk of the Order of Saint Arita.
"How dare you speak such blasphemy!" the monk roared in righteous rage. "The Tree of Life is not for mortal men. You have been deceived if you think you have found Eden and yet you have the audacity to deceive others for your petty greed. Begone! Out of our midst! This kingdom has no need for the likes of you and your ilk!"
The man's genial mood sharply changed as he glared at the monk.
"You have the gall to insult me, Ludimil the Invader?" he asked pointedly. "Do you not see the gems that adorn my blade and armor? They surge with the power of the ocean depths. For twelve generations, the descendants of the great Serkan have wielded this power and by this power, I will destroy you!"
Ludimil drew his sword. The crowd gasped and gave him wide berth, but the monk stood his ground. The gems on the sword glowed and a stream of water shot out with such force and velocity that it stripped flesh from bone.
Before the tattered carcass of the hapless monk could fall to the ground, Mark found that his fist had connected with the Invader's jaw. He had somehow crossed the distance between the edge of the crowd and Ludimil, acting before he even realized what he was doing. Mark was shocked at what he had done though he dare not show it. He knew that the Invader was the Elemental Knight embodying the dark aspect of the water element. Even if Mark had thought to wear his uncle's sword, the False Gems stood no chance against the real thing.
The look in Ludimil's eyes was quite different from his confrontation with the monk, showing a mix of surprise and bemusement. As he rubbed his cheek, his mouth twisted into a grin.
"You are very bold or very foolish to attack me after that demonstration of my power," he said. "Either way, you could prove useful." The Invader extended his hand out to Mark. "How about it, boy? Will you join me? Will you also seek immortality?"
"No," Mark replied curtly.
Ludimil frowned. "Killing you would be a waste of energy, not that there's any sport in killing children anyway." He spent a moment looking at Mark thoughtfully, tweaking one of the braids of his moustache. "You remind me of a boy my brother keeps whining about," he said. "That obnoxious little runt tells me he can attain a power greater than that of our ancestors. Amusing, is it not? After what you have seen, can you imagine any greater power?"
Had Mark been any less sensible, he would have said yes, but instead he held his tongue. Not as many people were willing to offer up their gold and many of the volunteers quietly mixed back into the crowd. After taking what he could get, Ludimil turned and walked away, his cronies quick to follow. The crowd slowly dispersed. Only a handful stayed behind by the body of the slain monk.
An old man fingering a rosary in his palsied hand walked up to Mark with his head bowed.
"That was brave of you, boy," he said, "but we are not to meet violence with violence. You are one of our brethren, yes?"
"I am," Mark replied.
"I can't believe that devil did such a thing to poor Brother Mikhail," a middle-aged man said.
"Well, we can't leave him like this," a woman added.
The old man looked to Mark. "Will you help us?"
Mark nodded and helped the few concerned citizens prepare the monk's remains to be sent to Arita for interment. When he was done, he returned to the house where they were staying. Waiting for him at the door, Catherine looked at him disapprovingly.
"I thought I told you to be inconspicuous," she said. "You put us all at risk and I would have us leave tonight if everyone was fit for travel. You must not go out again. I only hope you have not drawn any unwanted attention on these people here."
"I'm sorry," Mark said, hanging his head. "I couldn't help it. When I saw what that man did, I--"
I know, Mark. Now come inside.
It was a miserable way to end a miserable day. Mark was disturbed enough by what he had seen and by how easily he threw himself into the fray. The fact that his recklessness had put his friends and the people who were taking care of them in danger made it all the worse. And though he did not know why, Catherine's disapproval put an especially fine point on his guilt.
He had been lying in his bed sulking for at least an hour when he heard a faint knock on the door. Catherine let herself in and sat down on the side of the bed, facing away from Mark.
"I want to apologize for what I said earlier," she said in a low voice. "It is not you I am upset with. It is me. I was the one who put everyone at such great risk. I was the one who nearly got everyone killed. You may have done something foolish today, but you did it for the right reasons. I have no such excuse." She sighed. "I am too proud of my abilities, too confident in them. I was so certain I had gotten the better of Kyrios that I played right into his hands. I took out my frustration on you and it was wrong. I am sorry."
Mark sat up with some difficulty. "You don't need to apologize," he said, although secretly it made him feel better. "You were trying to do the right thing. Without you, there wouldn't be anyone to stand up to Kyrios. If it hadn't been for you, I would've just walked up to the castle and wound up dead. You made a mistake, but who doesn't? As bad as it gets, these things happen. You're only human."
"No," she said, her voice starting to break, "no, I am not. I am not only human. I have a power, a gift, a responsibility. No one else should have to lose their family..."
After bottling up her emotions for so long, Catherine finally broke down and cried. Mark did not know what to do. It was so shocking to see her like this. Ever since he met her, she was always so controlled, so controlling. She really did seem like something other than human, but now the facade had fallen away and all that was left was heartbroken girl who had lost everything.
He wanted to comfort her somehow, to say something that would make her feel better, but his mind was a blank. He did not like seeing her cry. It turned everything upside-down and inside-out in his head. Awkwardly, he inched over and haltingly put his arms around her. She did not pull away from his embrace. Instead she turned into it, gripping his shirt and burying her face in his chest.
He held her in silence like that for was seemed to be hours on end. When he could no longer hear the faint sound of her sobbing, she let go of his shirt and gently pushed away from him. Mark let her go and she stood up to smooth out her dress. Not bothering to wipe her tear-stained cheeks, she faced Mark and smiled weakly.
"Thank you, Mark," she said softly. "I was right to come to you. Now get some rest."
She leaned forward and gave him a tender kiss on the cheek before walking out of the room. Mark lay back down after Catherine left, but he did not fall asleep. He stared at the wet spots on his shirt from Catherine's tears. His hands flexed involuntarily from the sensation of holding her. He absently touched his cheek. It had not been the first time she kissed him like that, but the feeling was different this time. He did not quite know what it meant, though.

* * *

Three days later, the group was only fit for travel by the loosest judgment, but Catherine adamantly refused to impose on the gracious friends of her family any longer. Also, the Dragon Guard was frequenting Fiora in ever-increasing numbers in an effort to find them, so they could not stay much longer even if they wanted to. Under cover of night, they set out to explore the gorge near Sagia, the place they hoped to be Gaia's mouth.
They had not gone far when Mark heard Catherine's voice in his head.
I wish I could speak with you about more pleasant things, but now is not the time. I do not want the others to hear this. It is between you and me only. You know that boy who was with Captain Maksimov at the castle. I cannot touch him with my powers. It is rare, but some people are immune to the powers of psi. If Kyrios knows this, then that boy is his trump card against me. I cannot tell where he is or what he is thinking.
He is different from the ones under Kyrios' spell. Even though I cannot read his mind, it seems that he is serving the enemy of his own free will. That makes him all the more dangerous. I fear what he could become if left unchecked. If what his brother says is true, then he seeks to surpass the power of the Elemental Knights. He may never succeed, but the risk is too great to leave it to Fate. The next time we meet, we should kill him.
Mark stopped dead in his tracks. How could he have not seen it before? Brenok was the brother of Ludimil the Invader, a descendant of the Eight Stars just as he was. Usually, the children not designated as heirs fell to the wayside, but the legitimate heirs were not always the most powerful. The thought of Brenok attaining the sort of power he sought sent chill down Mark's spine.
Even so, as dangerous, mean-spirited and wretched as Brenok was, the thought of killing him made Mark uneasy. Killing was not an easy thing for him. When the time came, he hoped he would do the right thing.